The Martyrs Memorial, Oxford

Continued from “The Life of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer” to commemorate the execution of Cranmer on this day in history, the 21st March 1556.

Treason and Death: On the 13th November 1553, Thomas Cranmer was found guilty of treason and condemned to death. He was then moved to Oxford’s Bocardo Prison in March 1554, along with Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, and the three of them were tried in Oxford for heresy on the 12th September 1555.

Ridley and Latimer were found guilty immediately and were burnt at the stake on the 16th October 1555 but Cranmer had to wait for a final verdict from Rome. On the 4th December, Rome took the post of archbishop away from Cranmer and gave permission to the secular authorities to decide Cranmer’s sentence.

Between the end of January and mid February 1556, Cranmer made four recantations, submitting himself to the authority of the monarch and recognising the Pope as the head of the church. On the 14th February his priesthood was taken from him and his execution was set for the 7th March because Edmund Bonner was not happy with Cranmer’s admissions. Cranmer then made a fifth recantation, fully accepting Catholic theology, repudiating Reformist theology, stating that there was no salvation outside of the Catholic Church and announcing that he was happy to return to the Catholic fold. He participated in the mass and asked for sacramental absolution, which he received.

Cranmer’s recantation and his return to the Catholic Church should have resulted in him being absolved, but although his execution was postponed, Mary I then announced that it would be going ahead. On the 18th March he made his final recantation but his execution date was set for the 21st. On the date of his execution he was given the opportunity to publicly recant at the University Church, Oxford. Instead of recanting, Cranmer opened with the expected prayer and exhortation to obey the King and Queen, and then renounced his recantations, saying that the hand he had used to sign them would be the hand that would be punished by the fire first. Cranmer went on to say:-

“And as for the pope, I refuse him, as Christ’s enemy, and Antichrist with all his false doctrine.”

He didn’t have the chance to say anymore as he was quickly taken away to suffer his sentence. He was taken to the stake and it is said that he placed his right hand into the flames as they licked around him and as he died he said:-

“Lord Jesus, receive my spirit… I see the heavens open and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”

Cranmer Burning - Illustration from John Foxe's "Book of Martyrs"

An Unlawful Execution

Cranmer’s execution was unlawful because he was executed even though he had recanted. He had repented and accepted the Catholic Faith and even though Bonner had not been satisfied with his first four recantations his fifth seems to have been acceptable. However, Mary would not budge and Cranmer was executed. So why was Cranmer executed when he had quite clearly recanted? Possible reasons include:

  • Revenge – Cranmer was the one who had annulled Mary’s parents’ marriage and allowed her father to marry Anne Boleyn. Mary and her mother had been treated harshly by Henry VIII after the annulment.
  • An example – Was Cranmer used as an example to show how far the Church was willing to go to rid the country of heretics.
  • Theology – Did Mary see it as her job to punish and remove the man who could be held responsible for the English Reformation? Did she see herself as doing God’s work by getting rid of someone who was doing the Devil’s work?
  • Politics – Cranmer had been an influential political figure for two decades so perhaps Mary and her Council thought that it was dangerous to leave him alive.

A Broken Man

It is easy for us to criticise a man for recanting, for denying his faith instead of remaining strong, but what would we do in the face of an horrific punishment? Thomas Cranmer became a broken man after his recantations and he must have thought of St Peter who denied Christ three times before the cock crowed and who then broke down and wept as he realised what he had done.

Some may label Cranmer as a coward but he used his final opportunity to recant to take back his recantations and to be true to his faith. He died bravely, thrusting his right hand, the hand that had signed the recantations, into the flames saying “This hand hath offended”.

Being burned at the stake was a horrible death. A Wikipedia article on “Death by Burning” says:-

“If the fire was small…the convict would burn for some time until death from heatstroke and loss of blood plasma. When this method of execution was applied with skill, the condemned’s body would burn progressively in the following sequence: calves, thighs and hands, torso and forearms, breasts, upper chest, face; and then finally death. On other occasions, people died from suffocation with only their calves on fire. Several records report that victims took over 2 hours to die.”

Here is an eye-witness account of the burning of Thomas Cranmer:-

The Burning of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer

But that I know for our great friendships, and long continued love, you look even of duty that I should signify to you of the truth of such things as here chanceth among us; I would not at this time have written to you the unfortunate end, and doubtful tragedy, of Thomas Cranmer late bishop of Canterbury: because I little pleasure take in beholding of such heavy sights. And, when they are once overpassed, I like not to rehearse them again; being but a renewing of my woe, and doubling my grief. For although his former, and wretched end, deserves a greater misery, (if any greater might have chanced than chanced unto him), yet, setting aside his offenses to God and his country, and beholding the man without his faults, I think there was none that pitied not his case, and bewailed not his fortune, and feared not his own chance, to see so noble a prelate, so grave a counsellor, of so long continued honor, after so many dignities, in his old years to be deprived of his estate, adjudged to die, and in so painful a death to end his life. I have no delight to increase it. Alas, it is too much of itself, that ever so heavy a case should betide to man, and man to deserve it.

But to come to the matter: on Saturday last, being 21 of March, was his day appointed to die. And because the morning was much rainy, the sermon appointed by Mr Dr Cole to be made at the stake, was made in St Mary’s church: whither Dr Cranmer was brought by the mayor and aldermen, and my lord Williams: with whom came divers gentlemen of the shire, sir T A Bridges, sir John Browne, and others. Where was prepared, over against the pulpit, a high place for him, that all the people might see him. And, when he had ascended it, he kneeled him down and prayed, weeping tenderly: which moved a great number to tears, that had conceived an assured hope of his conversion and repentance….
When praying was done, he stood up, and, having leave to speak, said, ‘Good people, I had intended indeed to desire you to pray for me; which because Mr Doctor hath desired, and you have done already, I thank you most heartily for it. And now will I pray for myself, as I could best devise for mine own comfort, and say the prayer, word for word, as I have here written it.’ And he read it standing: and after kneeled down, and said the Lord’s Prayer; and all the people on their knees devoutly praying with him….

And then rising, he said, ‘Every man desireth, good people, at the time of their deaths, to give some good exhortation, that other may remember after their deaths, and be the better thereby. So I beseech God grant me grace, that I may speak something, at this my departing, whereby God may be glorified, and you edified….

And now I come to the great thing that troubleth my conscience more than nay other thing that ever I said or did in my life: and that is, the setting abroad of writings contrary to the truth. Which here now I renounce and refuse, as things written with my hand, contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart, and written for fear of death, and to save my life, if it might be: and that is, all such bills, which I have written or signed with mine own hand since my degradation: wherein I have written many things untrue. And forasmuch as my hand offended in writing contrary to my heart, therefore my hand shall first be punished: for if I may come to the fire, it shall be first burned. And as for the pope, I refuse him, as Christ’s enemy and antichrist, with all his false doctrine.’

And here, being admonished of his recantation and dissembling, he said, ‘Alas, my lord, I have been a man that all my life loved plainness, and never dissembled till now against the truth; which I am most sorry for it.’ He added hereunto, that, for the sacrament, he believed as he had taught in his book against the bishop of Winchester. And here he was suffered to speak no more….

Then was he carried away; and a great number, that did run to see him go so wicjedly to his death, ran after him, exhorting him, while time was, to remember himself. And one Friar John, a godly and well learned man, all the way traveled with him to reduce him. But it would not be. What they said in particular I cannot tell, but the effect appeared in the end: for at the stake he professed, that he died in all such opinions as he had taught, and oft repented him of his recantation.

Coming to the stake with a cheerful countenance and willing mind, he put off his garments with haste, and stood upright in his shirt: and bachelor of divinity, named Elye, of Brazen-nose college, labored to convert him to his former recantation, with the two Spanish friars. And when the friars saw his constancy, they said in Latin to one another ‘Let us go from him: we ought not to be nigh him: for the devil is with him.’ But the bachelor of divinity was more earnest with him: unto whom he answered, that, as concerning his recantation, he repented it right sore, because he knew it was against the truth; with other words more. Whereby the Lord Williams cried, ‘Make short, make short.’ Then the bishop took certain of his friends by the hand. But the bachelor of divinity refused to take him by the hand, and blamed all the others that so did, and said, he was sorry that ever he came in his company. And yet again he required him to agree to his former recantation. And the bishop answered, (showing his hand), ‘This was the hand that wrote it, and therefore shall it suffer first punishment.’

Fire being now put to him, he stretched out his right hand, and thrust it into the flame, and held it there a good space, before the fire came to any other part of his body; where his hand was seen of every man sensibly burning, crying with a loud voice, ‘This hand hath offended.’ As soon as the fire got up, he was very soon dead, never stirring or crying all the while.

His patience in the torment, his courage in dying, if it had been taken either for the glory of God, the wealth of his country, or the testimony of truth, as it was for a pernicious error, and subversion of true religion, I could worthily have commended the example, and matched it with the fame of any father of ancient time: but, seeing that not the death, but cause and quarrel thereof, commendeth the sufferer, I cannot but much dispraise his obstinate stubbornness and sturdiness in dying, and specially in so evil a cause. Surely his death much grieved every man; but not after one sort. Some pitied to see his body so tormented with the fire raging upon the silly carcass, that counted not of the folly. Other that passed not much of the body, lamented to see him spill his soul, wretchedly, without redemption, to be plagued for ever. His friends sorrowed for love; his enemies for pity; strangers for a common kind of humanity, whereby we are bound one to another. Thus I have enforced myself, for your sake, to discourse this heavy narration, contrary to my mind: and, being more than half weary, I make a short end, wishing you a quieter life, with less honor; and easier death, with more praise.


Related Post

13 thoughts on “The Execution of Thomas Cranmer”
  1. What an interesting article. I’ve always found Cranmer fascinating; I don’t believe that everything Henry VIII did with the power Cranmer helped him gain was right, but I do believe that Cranmer had the best of intentions. He was very brave to unthinkably challenge tradition in defense of what he believed was right. I especially admire Cranmer for his noble actions at the end of his life. Thanks for another great article Claire! 🙂

  2. When I was in high school, the boy I had a crush on since Seventh Grade was reading “My Lord of Canterbury.” So I checked it out from the library after him and read it as rapidly as possible. I did not enjoy it and remember very little of it now — it was longer ago than you can imagine. My major memory from the book was of Cranmer sticking his hand in the fire. But I also remember that Cranmer did not strike me as someone who committed to a cause because he thought it right, but rather because he thought it convenient or profitable in some fashion. And, friends of Anne Boleyn, do not forget that Cranmer arranged the annulment of the marriage of Henry and Anne before Anne’s execution.

  3. Thanks for the mention!

    During one of my visit to Oxford I took some photos of St Mary’s Church, where the authorities intended for Cranmer to make his public recantation before being led to the site of execution. Of course instead he took his moment to take back his recantation and publicly denounce the Pope. A section of one of the pillars was cut away to accommodate the stand built for Cranmer’s public spectacle, and this can still be seen today:

  4. I am a catholic. My parents were catholics. Of my family of nine, I remain the only catholic. I believe that all who believe in God’s forgiveness and beliefs are absolved. Christianity started with Christ. The beliefs that have followed are all true. And if they are not, we will find out in the end of days. Believe. Believe in Christ’s love. Believe in God’s love. Prosecute those who use their power to take innocence from the young. Including catholics.

    And always forgive. forgiveness is the bounty of God’s love. do not judge. forgive. Forgive. forgive.

    I have lived in Africa. I have seen Evil. Do not doubt God’s glory and miracles. I have seen Evil. I have seen Miracles. I have lived them. Believe. Believe. Believe.

    Catholics, Baptists, Evangelicals, Ch. of England, Christians. We are all the sons of God. The Souls of Gods. Pray for those who do evil and their eternal souls. Pray for those who perform miracles and believe.




    He will show us the way.

    And pray for the mercy of God.

    We need it now more than ever.

    And there are so many more who need it more than us.



    1. Yes, I have read his book and it’s excellent. Wikipedia is a minefield but there are people working hard to get articles edited and it’s excellent for photos.

  5. If you can believe this description of the execution then Cranmer, like most who were burned, he died of smoke inhalation. The reports of people living for two hours are things of myth. There is no way one can live inhaling smoke for two hours. The reports of Joan of Arc’s death show she died of smoke inhalation and was dead before the flames had burned her body.

    It amazes me the exaggerations that exist concerning executions. There were reports of people living two weeks after being crucified when the average time for death on the cross was anywhere from three to six hours.

  6. Such a sad article Catherine so obsessed with religion was responsible for Bloody Mary !! What a horrible person she was . Poor crammer horrible way to die religion certainly has a lot to answer for !!!

    1. You need to read Linda Porter and Anna Whitelock for a more balanced and authoritative perspective of Mary Tudor, far from an evil or horrible person, far more lenient to traitors than most monarchs.

  7. I don’t want to sound unsympathetic for Cranmer and I don’t like the idea of anyone being burnt any more than I would want to be burnt myself but I will point out that turning back into the previous reigns, Cranmer himself was instrumental in getting a few people executed.
    I don’t doubt that had Jane Grey prevailed it would just have been a reign of terror anyway and Cranmer might well have burnt Mary —- its not stretching the imagination.

    On the other hand, as Mary was a king’s daughter he might have been “merciful” and have had the decency to lop her head off instead!

  8. When commenting in an article about the execution of Thomas Cranmer that the ballade “The Hunting of the Snark” (1876, by Lewis Carroll and Henry Holiday) ends with a reference to that horrible event, you might think that such an comment is inappropriate – if not even crackpottish. How can one relate a cruel execution to a funny poem?

    We know the ballade of Lewis Carroll (pen name of Rev. C. L. Dodgson) as a dark but funny nonsense poem. However, the illustrator Henry Holiday wrote ( »L.C. forgot that “the Snark” is a tragedy.« But I think that Carroll wrote his poem in a way that you understand it at least in two different ways if you read it twice: as a child and as an adult.

    In the course of writing, book turned into a tragicomedy. But in the end, the ballade still might have been too dark in the view of Carroll. That perhaps was the reason that he took quite some (financial) effort to glue ( an uplifting “Easter Greeting” into the already printed first edition of the book. But an important tragical element stayed: The “Baker”, the weak and strong hero in Carroll’s ballade, vanished. And illustration by Henry Holiday to the final chapter “The Vanishing” contains a clear reference ( to a 16th century print which depicts protestant martyrs. Among them is Thomas Cranmer burning his hand.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *